How Real-Life Science Inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
By Dan Falk
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 200 years ago this year, is often called the first modern work of science fiction. It's also become a fixture of pop culture—so much so that even people who haven't read it know (or think they know) the story: An ambitious young scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque but vaguely human creature from the spare parts of corpses, but he loses control of his creation, and chaos ensues. It's a wildly inventive tale, one that flowed from an exceptional young woman's imagination and, at the same time, reflected the anxieties over new ideas and new scientific knowledge that were about to transform the very fabric of life in the 19th century.
The woman we remember as Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who tragically died shortly after Mary's birth). Hers was a hyper-literate household attuned to the latest scientific quests, and her parents (Godwin soon remarried) hosted many intellectual visitors. One was a scientist and inventor named William Nicholson, who wrote extensively on chemistry and on the scientific method. Another was the polymath Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles.
At just 16 years old, Mary ran off with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. A Cambridge graduate, Percy was a keen amateur scientist who studied the properties of gases and the chemical make-up of food. He was especially interested in electricity, even performing an experiment reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite test.
The genesis of Frankenstein can be traced back to 1816, when the couple spent the summer at a country house on Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Lord Byron, the famous poet, was in a villa nearby, accompanied by a young doctor friend, John Polidori. The weather was miserable that summer. (We now know the cause: In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing dust and smoke into the air which then circulated around the world, blotting out the Sun for weeks on end, and triggering widespread crop failure; 1816 became known as the "year without a summer.")
Mary and her companions—including her infant son, William, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont—were forced to spend their time indoors, huddled around the fireplace, reading and telling stories. As storm after storm raged outside, Byron proposed that they each write a ghost story. A few of them tried; today, Mary's story is the one we remember.
THE SCIENCE THAT INSPIRED SHELLEY
Frankenstein is, of course, a work of fiction, but a good deal of real-life science informed Shelley's masterpiece, beginning with the adventure story that frames Victor Frankenstein's tale: that of Captain Walton's voyage to the Arctic. Walton hopes to reach the North Pole (a goal that no one would achieve in real life for almost another century) where he might "discover the wondrous power that attracts the needle"—referring to the then-mysterious force of magnetism. The magnetic compass was a vital tool for navigation, and it was understood that the Earth itself somehow functioned like a magnet; however, no one could say how and why compasses worked, and why the magnetic poles differed from the geographical poles.
It's not surprising that Shelley would have incorporated this quest into her story. "The links between electricity and magnetism was a major subject of investigation during Mary's lifetime, and a number of expeditions departed for the North and South Poles in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the planet's magnetic field," writes Nicole Herbots in the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds.
Victor recounts to Walton that, as a student at the University of Ingolstadt (which still exists), he was drawn to chemistry, but one of his instructors, the worldly and affable Professor Waldman, encouraged him to leave no branch of science unexplored. Today scientists are highly specialized, but a scientist in Shelley's time might have a broad scope. Waldman advises Victor: "A man would make but a very sorry chemist if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics."
But the topic that most commands Victor's attention is the nature of life itself: "the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?" It is a problem that science is on the brink of solving, Victor says, "if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries."
In the era that Shelley wrote these words, the subject of what, exactly, differentiates living things from inanimate matter was the focus of impassioned debate. John Abernethy, a professor at London's Royal College of Surgeons, argued for a materialist account of life, while his pupil, William Lawrence, was a proponent of "vitalism," a kind of life force, an "invisible substance, analogous to on the one hand to the soul and on the other to electricity."
Another key thinker, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, proposed just such a life force, which he imagined as a chemical force similar to heat or electricity. Davy's public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a popular entertainment, and the young Shelley attended these lectures with her father. Davy remained influential: in October 1816, when she was writing Frankenstein almost daily, Shelley noted in her diary that she was simultaneously reading Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy.
Davy also believed in the power of science to improve the human condition—a power that had only just been tapped. Victor Frankenstein echoes these sentiments: Scientists "have indeed performed miracles," he says. "They penetrate into the recesses of Nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers …"
Victor pledges to probe even further, to discover new knowledge: "I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown Powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of Creation."
FROM EVOLUTION TO ELECTRICITY
Closely related to the problem of life was the question of "spontaneous generation," the (alleged) sudden appearance of life from non-living matter. Erasumus Darwin was a key figure in the study of spontaneous generation. He, like his grandson Charles, wrote about evolution, suggesting that all life descended from a single origin.
Erasmus Darwin is the only real-life scientist to be mentioned by name in the introduction to Shelley's novel. There, she claims that Darwin "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with a voluntary motion." She adds: "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth." (Scholars note that "vermicelli" could be a misreading of Vorticellae—microscopic aquatic organisms that Darwin is known to have worked with; he wasn't bringing Italian pasta to life.)
Victor pursues his quest for the spark of life with unrelenting zeal. First he "became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body." He eventually succeeds "in discovering the cause of the generation of life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter."
To her credit, Shelley does not attempt to explain what the secret is—better to leave it to the reader's imagination—but it is clear that it involves the still-new science of electricity; it is this, above all, which entices Victor.
In Shelley's time, scientists were just beginning to learn how to store and make use of electrical energy. In Italy, in 1799, Allesandro Volta had developed the "electric pile," an early kind of battery. A little earlier, in the 1780s, his countryman Luigi Galvani claimed to have discovered a new form of electricity, based on his experiments with animals (hence the term "galvanism" mentioned above). Famously, Galvani was able to make a dead frog's leg twitch by passing an electrical current through it.
And then there's Giovanni Aldini—a nephew of Galvani—who experimented with the body of a hanged criminal, in London, in 1803. (This was long before people routinely donated their bodies to science, so deceased criminals were a prime source of research.) In Shelley's novel, Victor goes one step further, sneaking into cemeteries to experiment on corpses: "… a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life … Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses."
Electrical experimentation wasn't just for the dead; in London, electrical "therapies" were all the rage—people with various ailments sought them out, and some were allegedly cured. So the idea that the dead might come back to life through some sort of electrical manipulation struck many people as plausible, or at least worthy of scientific investigation.
One more scientific figure deserves a mention: a now nearly forgotten German physiologist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Like Volta and Galvani, Ritter worked with electricity and experimented with batteries; he also studied optics and deduced the existence of ultraviolet radiation. Davy followed Ritter's work with interest. But just as Ritter was making a name for himself, something snapped. He grew distant from his friends and family; his students left him. In the end he appears to have had a mental breakdown. In The Age of Wonder, author Richard Holmes writes that this now-obscure German may have been the model for the passionate, obsessive Victor Frankenstein.
A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, NOT SCIENCE
In time, Victor Frankenstein came to be seen as the quintessential mad scientist, the first example of what would become a common Hollywood trope. Victor is so absorbed by his laboratory travails that he failed to see the repercussions of his work; when he realizes what he has unleashed on the world, he is overcome with remorse.
And yet scholars who study Shelley don't interpret this remorse as evidence of Shelley's feelings about science as a whole. As the editors of Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds write, "Frankenstein is unequivocally not an antiscience screed."
We should remember that the creature in Shelley's novel is at first a gentle, amicable being who enjoyed reading Paradise Lost and philosophizing on his place in the cosmos. It is the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow citizens that changes his disposition. At every turn, they recoil from him in horror; he is forced to live the life of an outcast. It is only then, in response to cruelty, that his killing spree begins.
"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded," the creature laments to his creator, Victor. "I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."
But Victor does not act to ease the creature's suffering. Though he briefly returns to his laboratory to build a female companion for the creature, he soon changes his mind and destroys this second being, fearing that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth." He vows to hunt and kill his creation, pursuing the creature "until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict."
Victor Frankenstein's failing, one might argue, wasn't his over-zealousness for science, or his desire to "play God." Rather, he falters in failing to empathize with the creature he created. The problem is not in Victor's head but in his heart.